Since I published my original short article on this subject, a number of you have asked me to make some clarifications and extensions. I thought it appropriate to deal with some of those today.
Last August on this site, Dr Dave pointed us to a speech made by Ronald Reagan in 1964 whilst campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. It enunciates the principles of Libertarianism so well I thought it worth putting at the head of today’s thread. As Dave said at the time, it’s well worth half an hour of your life to watch. If you prefer, you can read the transcript here (but take my advice and watch the clip – Ronnie Reagan really was the last of the great twentieth-century orators).
Libertarianism vs Conservatism
In my original article, I gave a definition of conservatism as the belief that change in any society can only take place within its own historical and cultural context. It is often said in this regard that change should be evolutionary, not revolutionary.
For this reason, conservatism as a political philosophy is very much a relative term, and not based on any philosophical or ideological absolutes. I know many of you describe yourselves as conservatives rather than Libertarians. I don’t doubt that you are. But that’s because you happen to live in a (nominally, at least) Western, capitalist democracy, and I suspect what you really mean is that you subscribe to the principles of Western capitalism and democracy. In the early 1980s, to take a counter-example, a Soviet party commisar who supported the old order of the Brezhnev era, and opposed Mikhail Gorbachev’s programs of glasnost and perestroika, would also have been regarded as a conservative. And indeed, was described as such in the western media at the time. A conservative Chinese politician and a conservative Saudi politician would hold views on free speech and the place of women respectively, that most of you would almost certainly find abhorrent.
Like any relative philosophy, conservatism can be taken to arbitrarily extreme lengths: a traditionalist opposes any change, valuing the status quo as a function of its longevity, while a reactionary goes even further, seeking to overturn recent changes to return to some status quo ante. I grant you though, in modern parlance the term conservative is used interchangeably (albeit inaccurately) with the political Right.
The opposite of a conservative, of course, is a progressive. Progressives care little for historical or cultural contexts, and seek immediate change wherever and whenever they see fit, according to whatever philosophy they might hold. Again, progressivism is a relative term, and thus can similarly be followed logically to whatever extreme you wish. The terms radical and revolutionary are the corolloraries of traditionalist and reactionary respectively. And correspondingly, progressivism in modern usage is employed loosely and interchangeably with the political Left. It’s a kind of Cold War anachronism, harking back to the days of fears of communist threats to the West and so forth. Socialism, being ostensibly of the Left, was the enemy, and those who opposed its influence (literally, conservative) aligned themselves, and found common cause, with the political Right.
Libertarianism, of course, dealing as it does with the relationship between citizen and state, is fundamentally neither conservative nor progressive. Wars have been fought over liberty: some seeking it, some defending it, others seeking to deprive others of it. A Libertarian will be as conservative or progressive as needed, depending on the society in which he finds himself.
A Libertarian will tell you that we all need to agree on which side of public roads we are to drive: any diehard individualists who disagree will just have to go and build their own private road, and motor away on their own side to their heart’s content. An anarchist, by contrast, will tell you that you need to learn to swerve.
Unlike conservatism, anarchy, as a political philosophy, is based on an absolute principle: the elimination of the state entirely. Given that you must be almost militantly ignorant of human nature, with its susceptibility to egotism and power, to believe in it at all, and given that no anarchic society has stood the test of time, anywhere, ever, anarchy in my experience is generally used as a stalking horse for something else entirely. What self-proclaimed anarchists tend to want is lawlessness; licence of some sort or another (I’ll get back to this in a moment). But they’re never consistent about it; they seem to want all the protections provided by the law, but none of its restrictions. A bit like the “anarcho-syndicalist commune”:
I don’t like either of these terms, even though GE came perilously close to using the latter one yesterday. And I’ll tell you why. As I’ve said here many times, the terms left-wing and right-wing refer to what type of liberties you’re prepared to relinquish to the state, as depicted in the Nolan Chart. They imply a compromise, trading liberty for either state largesse or a state-imposed moral code. For people who are prepared to give away either economic or personal liberty to the state, to expropriate the term Libertarian is a rank contradiction in terms (of course, James is hardly a right-winger, as many of his posts over the last year make abundantly clear; I do see what he was getting at, though, and given how Libertarianism seems to have overtaken science scepticism as the focus of trolls’ outrage on his blog, the sentiment is understandable).
“Left-libertarian” is generally code for someone who is a bit of a mixture of communist and anarchist (like the fellow in the Monty-Python clip above). I remember one of JD’s posters describing himself as left-libertarian: English chap from Liverpool calling himself TheBNPWantsToStealMyPassport (due to his Caribbean heritage, I believe). He asserted that property was the biggest problem in society, and to his credit put up some pretty cogent arguments in favour of his thesis. I’ve invited him round here before to debate the issue; if any of you run into him, pass on my cordial invitation to drop by.
Without getting too sidetracked, Libertarians view the upholding of the law of the land (which exists to protect life and limb, liberty and private property) as one of the central legitimate rôles of government, which places Libertarianism squarely against anarchy.
In the main though, so-called left-libertarians appear to be mainly your garden-variety rent-seekers and scroungers: people, in other words, who don’t want to work for a living, or at any rate do all they can to shield the value of their work from the judgement of the free market. You find them in government-appointed consultancies and quangos; pounding the pavements for Greenpeace or the like; or joining in as many protest marches as possible: the more violent, it would seem, the better. Then they’re the first to complain about police brutality, of course!
And then there are those who, while waving the Libertarian flag, seek license to indulge their anti-social behaviours to the detriment of others. Msher asked me the other day about the fact that several organised paedophilia advocacy groups use the principles of Libertarianism to try to legitimize their leanings.
Well, very few would disagree that people of that ilk are about as reprehensible as you can get. And they don’t understand the philosophy of Libertarianism at all, founded as it is on a mutual respect for the liberties of others. Those who carelessly destroy the lives of children in a selfish pursuit of their own lusts are about as far removed from Libertarianism as you can get, besides being, in the eyes of many, a pretty good advertisement for the reintroduction of the death penalty.
More Libertarian Than Thou
There’s no one single prophet or guru on Libertarianism, any more that there is one single bible of it. The one-sentence definition I originally gave offers scope for Libertarianism to be a pretty broad church, and indeed Libertarians have widely varying positions on many issues; exploring these is this site’s very raison d’être. In economics, to take one example, you have the Austrian-school ideologues, those who promote a return to the gold standard and/or competing currencies issued by private banks. You have diverse opinions on free trade, immigration, abortion, you name it. And I’ll eventually get around to canvassing most if not all of these issues on this forum. No individual (and certainly not me) can claim to be the fountain of all wisdom on this philosophy. Though many do, as if there was some sort of canon, or magisterium, of Libertarianism. Well, there isn’t.
That’s probably enough discussion points for one thread. I’ll check in regularly and make sure no comments get held up too long.